Every year Condé Nast magazine announces their Readers’ Choice Award for best U.S. Cities as voted on by their readers. Charleston, South Carolina has won the #1 city for seven straight years now. From 2011 to 2014 it won the top spot, and since 2015 when the contest was split between large and small cities, it has continually claimed the “top small city” award through the time of this writing. Travel + Leisure magazine named it the #1 city in the WORLD in 2016. That’s impressive!
Prior to 2010, my family had never been to Charleston. We had always heard that it was a wonderful place to visit and that it was incredibly beautiful and the people were the friendliest people you’d meet anywhere, however we just never got around to going.
Then, when a dynamic change of events happened at work (we were living in Washington State at the time), we found ourselves packing our bags and MOVING to Charleston, South Carolina! Excited and nervous at the same time, we took a house hunting trip to explore this renowned city that we’d never visited before. When we arrived and finally got to explore, we fell in love. This post discusses what Charleston is all about, and why you really need to take a trip there and see it for yourself.
Charleston is chock full of history, so much so that you can’t escape it. From colonial era houses to Revolutionary War monuments to Civil War historic sites, the history is everywhere here. Even if you aren’t a history buff or have no interest in battlefields and old war museums, I promise you will love it – and your kids will too!
One of the best things about Charleston (unlike many other U.S. cities) is that it has a historic preservation law. This ordinance, first passed in 1931 established strict guidelines for the city which strives to protect its colonial era charm consisting of several old pastel colored buildings and quiet gardens. Included in this ordinance is a height limitation on buildings. This is the reason you will never see giant skyscrapers here. In fact the skyline of Charleston is comprised of colonial church steeples!
This is personally my favorite aspect of Charleston. There aren’t many places left today where you can walk around and almost feel like you’re in the late 1700s. The city is a time capsule and a beautiful one at that! Below are several historic sites you can visit with your family that I’m sure you’ll love. Clicking on the title of each will take you to their respective websites for further information.
This famous sea fort is most famous for its role in the Civil War, where the first shots were fired. You can take a ferry from Patriots Point where tours are given daily.
This fort dates to the Revolutionary War and actually had embankments made from palmetto tree trucks. This fort was especially fun to explore with the kids because of the small and narrow passages!
Charles Towne Landing marks the original site of the first permanent English settlement in Carolina. There are colonial exhibits to explore, nature/hiking trails, a great Visitor Center, and even a replica of a 17th-century sailing ship you can climb aboard. This makes for an excellent day trip, especially with kids.
Charleston City Market
This is one of the most popular sites in Charleston. While it has seen many renovations over the years (latest in 2011), the public market dates back to the early 19th century when stands here rented for 25 cents per week! Today the market is extremely vibrant, with more than 300 merchants selling all sorts of items. This is one place to purchase authentic hand-made sweetgrass baskets, which originally were used on local plantations.
For veterans and all fans of the U.S. Military, Patriots Point is a must see. This naval and maritime museum is one of the best we’ve been to. With real retired navy ships to explore including the USS Yorktown Aircraft Carrier and the USS Clamagore Submarine, this is a place I actually felt like a kid again – especially when I pulled the dive horn accidentally while touring the sub.
Beautiful Downtown Charleston
One of the things people love so much about Charleston is its beauty. The picturesque port city has so much to offer in this area, it’s often difficult to know where to begin. With it’s decorative facades, infamous single houses (side porch style houses Charleston is famous for), historical plantations, and more – Charleston has a charm like no other city. Below are some examples of some of the beautiful and amazing sites to see in historic Charleston.
A series of thirteen colorful colonial aged houses, Rainbow Row is one of the top photographed sites in Charleston. This is the longest strip of Georgian row houses in the United States. The houses used to originally face the Cooper river, however the land has subsequently been filled in, and now can be found just off shore on East Bay Street.
Charleston still has 7 cobblestone streets to explore and enjoy. While these are only regular streets and alleys open to the public, who doesn’t enjoy the old-fashioned feel to them!
These can be found on Maiden Lane, Philadelphia Alley, Chalmers Street, Gillon Street, N. Adger’s Wharf, S. Adger’s Wharf, and Longitude Lane. All 7 of them can be walked on foot in less than 30 minutes. Below I included a walking map you can follow to reach them all.
If you don’t feel like walking the cobblestone streets, you can take an old-fashioned carriage ride lead by mules to take you around. My family and I did this and found it to be fantastic. The driver will provide a history lesson along the way, pointing out several notable locations as you pass. There are several companies that offer this service however the most notable one is Palmetto Carriage Works.
One of the top 10 most famous streets in America, King Street, is the main shopping district of Charleston. Lined with all kinds of interesting shops and restaurants, this is where you’ll find many people – locals and tourists alike love it.
Parks, Gardens, & Plantations
Charleston and the surrounding area has numerous greenspaces to enjoy. If you’re a lover of flowers, trees, and natural beauty – trust me you will not be disappointed. Below is a list of just a few of these places.
Battery Park & White Point Gardens
A trip to Charleston isn’t complete without a walk through here. Within walking distance from Rainbow Row, this 5.7 acre public park is located at the extreme tip of the peninsula that makes up downtown Charleston. The historic park has famous million dollar mansions lining it to one side, and the Charleston harbor on the other. The park has old cannons and cannon balls to take pictures with (great for kids), and fantastic views of the harbor. You can even see Fort Sumter from here where the first shots of the Civil War were fired.
A beautiful 8 acre park along the Cooper River in downtown Charleston, this is another great place to bring the kids and just hang out. This is where the iconic Pineapple Fountain is located.
This is another very popular park in downtown Charleston. Spanning 6.5 acres, this greenspace is often used for seasonal farmer’s markets in the city, and other special occasions. It marks the finish-line for the annual Cooper River Bridge Run (one of the nation’s largest 10K races) and this is where much of the after-race festivities are held, including live performances from musical guests.
If you’re a fan of flowers and all things of natural beauty then you’ll love Magnolia Plantation and Gardens. This enormous plantation (464 acres) takes you back in time to the days of the old Carolinian rice plantations. The historic house and beautiful gardens are located on Ashley River Road.
This is another historic plantation, though not quite as big as Magnolia at only 110 acres, but still very beautiful and well kept. The plantation’s history dates to the 1730s and the family that owned it played a prominent role in the colonial and antebellum history of South Carolina.
This 1861 working plantation has massive live oaks and original slave cabins. Great for history buffs and garden fans! In the Fall you can find a pumpkin patch here and an awesome corn maze that has really unique and interesting designs (when viewed from the sky).
Last but not least are beaches. This is something that South Carolina as a whole is one of the best places to visit if you’re a fan of the seashore. Charleston has several beaches all within reach of the city that are unique in their own way. They are listed below from north to south along the coast.
Isle of Palms
This is an excellent choice if you’re in the Charleston area. Located on the north side of Charleston, this beach is very large and spacious. Both vacation homes and year-round residents make up the community here. There is a great selection of local restaurants and resorts.
This beach is also located on the north side of Charleston. It’s a quieter beach, not one frequented by tourists, which makes it very popular among locals. In fact there aren’t any parking lots for this beach. It’s all street parking. Surrounded by private properties, local shops, and restaurants, if you’re looking for a great beach hidden from tourists, this is a great choice.
Our personal favorite – nicknamed “the Edge of America” – Folly is located on an island by the same name just off shore of James Island. The beach is massive and has plenty of things to do besides sunbathing (although you can do that too). There are beautiful beach houses you can rent, wonderful restaurants, an incredibly long (over 1,000 ft) pier, a light house, and much more. It can get crowded on the holidays, but usually you can find a nice place to relax and soak up the sun. Our kids love it here!
A 10,000 acre barrier island with miles of beautiful beach area, marsh, and riverhead, Kiawah Island is stunning. This is probably why it’s so expensive to live here. The island is home to an acclaimed resort with over 4,000 residences with a world-class golf course. HGTV’s dream home from 2013 is located here. The only downside to Kiawah is most of the island isn’t open to non-residents. community is gated and you must be visiting someone for access. However, there is a public beach on the west end of Kiawah called Beachwalker Park. It’s a nice beach with great facilities and lifeguards. Access is limited by the small parking lot which usually fills up fast during the summer weekends, so get there early!
Enjoy a slower paced life? Seabrook could be your beach. This beach is another private residential island community with championship golf, a deep-water marina, and horseback riding. Seabrook Island has 2 smaller beaches known as North Beach and Pelican Beach. North Beach is the widest beach in South Carolina. This is a great beach to let dogs run free on. Pelican beach is a great family beach for those will small children. There are often no waves and the waters are fairly calm.
This is another favorite of ours. The reason is because it’s the furthest from Charleston of all the others mentioned, and as a result very quiet and relaxed. It’s one of the few uncommercialized beaches left and great for families. Vacation rentals are available here, and there are some local restaurants, but not too many. We liked it here so much we considered moving here, but it would have been a long commute to work. We are still considering this area for retirement.
The above are seriously just a fraction of all there is to see and do in Charleston. There are numerous other historical sites, museums, and much more. I hope you enjoyed reading this article. If you did, please leave me a comment below and let me know. You can also subscribe to this blog by entering your name and e-mail on the form found on the sidebar (Scroll down on mobile devices). Thank you for reading!
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